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L.A. product Charlie Valencia fights for love of the sport

April 29, 2011 |  9:00 am

Jbmhrmnc With 55,000 people and an $11 million gate expected for Saturday’s UFC 129 event from Toronto, it’s easy to forget that UFC’s popularity boom is still less than six years old. When Kobe Bryant won his first NBA title, UFC wasn’t even widely available on pay-per-per-view. There was no money in the sport even on the highest levels outside of Japan.

This history may seem odd to the millions of fans who have now gotten behind the sport, but it is a most familiar reality to the fighters who worked their way up through the ranks during that period. For Charlie Valencia, it is the sport’s lofty status that seems strange and out of place.

Valencia grew up in East Los Angeles, where boxing was king to many Mexican-American sports fans. Valencia’s father was a big boxing fan but didn’t want his son engaging in what he viewed as too violent of an activity. Ironically, that ended up directing Valencia into the world of MMA. Without boxing as an option, Valencia pursued an eclectic mix of sports: gymnastics, hockey and wrestling among others. It was wrestling that he excelled at, and after his wrestling career ended he was looking to continue to use the skills he had built up over the years.

At the time, MMA was still an underground sport in many locations. Los Angeles had a thriving MMA scene that served as a starting point for many future stars, but it was mostly unsanctioned fights set up in garages, gyms and small bars. Valencia entered this scene in the mid-1990s and fought for many years before the first fights that show up in his listed records.

During that period, Valencia would sometimes get a call on a Thursday or Friday night. He was told by an organizer that some fights would be taking place that weekend at a specific location. Valencia would decide whether to take the fight and would then let the organizer know on Saturday morning. He would show up at the designated location and be matched up with someone close to his size.

For Valencia, this was a problem. Valencia is not a large man. He stands around 5’3" and while he fights at 135 pounds, his natural weight class by MMA standards of cutting is 125 or lower. As larger fighters have begun competing more in the featherweight and bantamweight classes, Valencia increasingly finds himself at a size advantage. His opponent Saturday once fought UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. But back then, weight cutting wasn’t going on and there weren’t a lot of natural 135 pound fighters to begin with. So Valencia frequently faced off with 160-170 pound opponents.

Valencia started in a simpler, and many would argue more barbaric, period for the sport. There weren’t judges for his early unsanctioned fights. The rules were significantly dialed back. The bouts ended via knockout or submission. Valencia views that period as a fun time, but notes he came out of fights feeling more hurt and banged up because of the lack of restrictions on certain now-banned tactics.

Valencia moved on to sanctioned fights and became a King of the Cage regular. Rules were now in place and the crowds were bigger, but the money was similarly dismal. The smaller weight classes didn’t draw like the larger weight classes, and Valencia continued to fight for the love of game.

To pay the bills and support his two children through much of his MMA career, Valencia did sales for Anheuser-Busch. Valencia has continued to take work on the side through 2011, to make extra money but also for the sake of health insurance.

"To be honest, I haven’t really stopped working," Valencia admits. "I tried to stop working but it’s like bad luck with me. I tried to take fighting full time but when my insurance ran out I kept getting hurt left and right. I went back to work for insurance purposes, but then I didn’t get hurt for a long time."

Now, the Los Angeles native finds himself at the highest level of the sport. His first fight in the UFC and first fight outside the US will take place in front of 55,000 people in Canada against a Canadian opponent. A bonus for best knockout, best submission or best fight would be by far the biggest payday of his career. That’s a lot to process, but Valencia tries to stay focused on the fight.

"When it comes down to it, it’s still a fight," Valencia says. "That’s never going to change whether it’s Canada, Japan, the US, WEC or the UFC. I still have to fight; that’s the bottom line. I’m not letting anything else interfere with the thoughts of what I need to do on that night."

While Valencia has not fought on a comparable stage to what he will deal with Saturday, he has competed against the best his division has to offer. Over the course of his career, Valencia has fought four of the Times’ five top bantamweights. His opponent Ivan Menjivar has more international experience but does not hold a significant edge when it comes to fighting top flight opposition.

The strength of the bantamweight division to Valencia is the wide range of skills that each of the division’s top fighters bring to the table. Gameplans need to vary wildly to counteract the variant skills of the best competitors. Perhaps no one is better suited to judge how the division stacks up than Valencia.

"Dominick Cruz has a style that is so hard to figure out," Valencia notes. "He hit me and it didn’t really hurt me but he’s constantly hitting you and constantly moving. It made me look at his tapes, trying to break it down because it’s so effective. Brian Bowles is a very strong guy. He hits pretty hard. He’s got very good submissions. He has different strengths. Urijah Faber is so quick and scrambles so well. He doesn’t stay in one position very long. He’s very, very good at squeezing, like an anaconda. He’s more well-rounded than anyone else. Miguel Torres is long and uses his length well. The size difference is the thing that stands out the most with him."

On Saturday, Valencia will have to deal with an altogether different challenge. Menjivar is making his UFC bantamweight debut and desperately needs a win after losing three of his last four fights. Valencia isn’t taking him lightly.

"I don’t really think he has any weaknesses to be honest," Valencia says. "He’s well rounded wherever it goes – standing, on his back, with jiu jitsu or striking. I’ll have to find something in there. Once I start seeing weakness I have to exploit it but that’s not something I see in his videos. It’s something I’ll have to figure out when I’m in there."

Figuring out an opponent on the fly is nothing new to Valencia. He has battled up to the biggest stage on Saturday night, just like the UFC. It will now be up to him to show newer fans what they’ve been missing all these years.

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-- Todd Martin

Photo: Two fighters square off before 10,863 fans at a nine-bout Ultimate Fighting Championship event in 2007. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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